Nearly six months have passed since news of the Dan River coal ash spill first reached the public in North Carolina. Since that time, Duke Energy has been working slowly to vacuum up the large, readily identifiable deposits of coal ash from the roughly 39,000 tons that spilled.
Most of the cleanup has been focused close to the location of the broken pipe and near Danville, Virginia, where sediment was trapped behind the low Schoolfield Dam. Nearly six months of work and a staggering 6 percent has been recovered — staggering for how little that is.
Duke and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was overseeing the work, seem satisfied with this recovery rate and have declared the cleanup “complete,” leaving behind more than 35,000 tons or slightly more than 90 percent of spilled coal ash in the Dan River.
Let’s look at it from another perspective. Say you ask your teenager to clean up his messy bedroom. He picks up a few articles of dirty clothing from the floor and puts them in the laundry, and calls it quits. “That’s it?” you ask.
The sad truth is the premature ending of the cleanup means the Dan River will forever be sullied by the toxic, dark grey ash that lurks below the surface. Coal ash does not biodegrade. It will simply remain in the river unless removed. So, where are the remaining 35,000 tons (130 thousand cubic yards) of ash and why are they not being removed?
One of Duke’s replies has been that such a thin layer exists over such a large area — about 70 miles of river that it’s impractical or nearly impossible to recover. But remember the Kingston, Tennessee disaster that spilled 5.4 million cubic yards (1.4 million tons) of coal ash into the Emory River in 2008?
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the Kingston coal-fired power plant, worked for six years on the cleanup. Ultimately, TVA removed 3.5 million cubic yards of ash in a 12-month period, with 85 percent of the ash being removed in 10 months. This fact makes Duke Energy’s six percent in six months an outrage and a failure.
Why are North Carolinians expected to accept such a pitiful cleanup of one of our most treasured rivers when it has fallen far short of amounting to even a half-measure? Every excuse from Duke Energy is like the little boy crying wolf. Most of the actions they say cannot be done have been accomplished successfully in other states. How long before someone calls their bluff?
Amy Adams is the North Carolina campaigncCoordinator for the nonprofit advocacy group Appalachian Voices and a former environmental regulator at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.